Asbury Park Press

Assembly Panel Tackles Plan For Ethics Reform

Asbury Park Press — Tuesday, April 27, 2004


TRENTON — Critics said the campaign finance reforms being pushed by Assembly Democrats have some shortcomings, though most interest groups lined up in support of the plan at the kickoff committee meeting yesterday.

The Assembly State Government Committee meeting focused on eight bills in the 25-point ethics reform plan. Bills singled out for criticism include one that bans the solicitation of campaign donations on state property, which is now legal.

Assembly Democrats have proposed banning incumbents or candidates for governor or Legislature from soliciting funds for their campaigns, but the plan doesn't ban collecting for state, county or municipal committees or leadership political action committees, or PACs.

"Purposefully and knowingly soliciting contributions from a gubernatorial or legislative office is a slap in the face to taxpayers," said Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan Jr., D-Middlesex.

But skeptics said the practice could continue. Even if the law passed, legislators who also hold local offices could ask for money for their mayoral committees, for example, or for other funds with higher donation limits.

"By precluding the municipal and county, I think we are opening up a significant loophole in this very important piece of legislation," said Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr., R-Union, who sponsored a similar bill last session.

Diegnan said: "I will bring that consideration back. I think the purpose of the bill was to focus on the Legislature, but I think it's a very valid observation, and I will bring it back."

Common Cause and the League of Women Voters also said the ban on raising political funds on state property should be expanded to cover other accounts, including party committees and leadership PACs.

In all, yesterday's meeting focused on eight bills aimed at strengthening the Election Law Enforcement Commission by improving its online site, doubling its fines and expanding campaign disclosure.

The bills are part of a package the Legislature wants to pass by July 1.

Staci Berger, campaign director for New Jersey Citizen Action, commented, "While the legislation being discussed today deals with smaller changes, we believe they speak volumes about changing the overall system to one that is easier for candidates and the public at large to use."

"A lot of the bills before you today are really common sense," said David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "We're glad they're up. It's also a sad state of affairs that they are up because they are such common sense it's kind of ludicrous they're not already in effect."

Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University, said: "Your constituents probably take for granted that those are the rules. You don't solicit on government property. That's the kind of thing that voters just take for granted."

AARP lobbyist Douglas Johnston said he has received phone calls from staff in legislative offices soliciting campaign contributions at least three times.

"AARP is nonpartisan. We don't have a PAC. So I just say no because we don't make contributions. But I do think it's highly inappropriate, and it ought to be illegal," Johnston said.

ELEC Executive Director Frederick M. Herrmann said the commission is preparing an analysis of how much money each proposal would cost. He said ELEC strongly supports the reforms, some of which it has sought for seven years.

But Herrmann said he thought the plan to require disclosure of all campaign contributors giving $100 or more reaches too far. The current limit is $400, increasing $100 every four years - according to a formula adopted 10 years ago.

"If the Legislature moves this back to $100, it would be at the same level that was in the bill in 1973. You'll be turning the clock back 30 years, and I think $100 just doesn't go as far today as it did then," Herrmann said.

ELEC wants the disclosure trigger lowered to $300 and the law changed to require the commission to adjust it for inflation every eight to 12 years, rather than every four years, Herrmann said.

Assemblywoman Joan M. Voss, D-Bergen, said she disagreed with Herrmann and prefers lowering the limit to $100. Other states have even lower triggers, and the current $400 limit is the nation's highest, she said.

From June to November 2002, about $3.2 million in nonitemized donations were made, Voss said. The tracking service listed 135 fund-raising events for last year at which the suggested contribu-tion was less than $400.

"This current level is an open invitation to abuse. Anonymous donations of political money leave the public in the dark about who is contributing to elected officials," said Voss, who contended money moves around "underneath the radar."

Herrmann said ELEC - which plans to launch a revamped Web site this fall - would study further improvements for free. One bill would assess a $50 fee on all 588 registered lobbyists, making roughly $30,000 avail-able to fund the study.

Assembly Democrats choreographed the day's events, using PowerPoint presentations, visits to other states' Web sites and audio clips of automated political "robo-calls" to voters in other states.

While advocating for mandatory training for campaign treasurers in state campaigns and organizations, Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, flopped 400-plus pages of ELEC rules and forms onto the table, creating a loud thud.

Republicans countered by calling on Democrats to consider some of the bills they've introduced on ethics topics. And they said the proposals on the docket yesterday weren't aimed at the most pressing ethics issues of the day.

"They're not all new, they're not all exciting, and frankly they're probably not all that necessary to the state of New Jersey," said Assemblyman Richard A. Merkt, R-Morris. Later he added, "Honestly, if these bills fell off the edge of the world tomorrow, no one would notice."

Assemblyman Alfred E. Steele, D-Passaic, chairman of the Assembly State Government Committee, attempted to pre-empt such criticism in his opening remarks, saying that free, fair elections contribute to confidence in the system.

"With the rising cost of elections and the continuing infiltration of special-interest money into the political process, it is more imperative than ever that ELEC have tools and teeth for the public interest," Steele said.

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